After a flubbed response to Hurricane Katrina, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, several corruption cases and a mangled economy, the Republican Party found itself Tuesday in a damp, earthy pit it had been digging for years. Climbing back out and shedding its label of incompetence may not be easy.
"The first fact of the 2008 election is the failure of the Republican Congress and the Republican president," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "John McCain ran 24-plus points ahead of President Bush's job approval - an amazing achievement. This was a performance election not an ideological election."
To recover its majority-party luster, the GOP will have to overcome a weak bench, a confused message and lack of a single recognized leader. Surprisingly, Republicans may also have a military problem to fix before the next elections.
Many Republicans and some Republican voters under arms came to dislike what critics and supporters alike call the "Bush-Cheney war" in Iraq, just as a large majority of Americans in general came to conclude that the war wasn't worth waging and that Iraq was never an imminent threat.
"Republicans owned the military and the war issue, but you have so many younger people military dependents from all over the country stationed or living here in western Kentucky," said Kentucky-based Republican campaign strategist Tim Havrilek, a conservative evangelical Christian. "Patriotism and the flag don't cut it anymore, not with body bags being hauled off in plain view every week, military dependents feeling the squeeze of the economy just like everyone else, our military people going back to Iraq and Afghanistan five and six times.
"I've never seen more military people out working to elect a Democrat for president," he said.
Universally, Republicans say the party needs to rediscover ways to develop leaders who stand out, either in the traditional limited-government Reagan mode or global-interventionist Bush-Cheney mode - or some new amalgam.
No GOP nomination contender came close to emerging as leader of economic conservatives who disdain Mr. Bush's budget-busting ways, the religious and social right and the national-defense faction. Several candidates divided first conservative hopes and then conservative votes, allowing Mr. McCain to emerge as the nominee.
That leaves one star standing - and her ultra-strong commitment to one side in the Middle East may make her a party divider. Then there's the question of her prime-time readiness.
"Sarah Palin might be as close to a traditional conservative as we've had on the main stage, but I think she risks being trivialized in much the same way as Dan Quayle - pushed into national leadership before she was really ready and unable to hold the stage," said David Davenport, Hoover Institution research fellow.
"So where will this be sorted out?" asked Mr. Davenport. "I don't think in Congress, where the Republican presence is diminished. Not by McCain, who's had his chance and isn't strong philosophically anyway. Not by Palin, who will struggle to hold a place on the stage. I'm not sure any of the other also-rans from this race are likely to carry a lot of clout."
Mr. Gingrich said that House and Senate Republicans ought to turn to creative governors like Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Georgia's Sonny Perdue, South Carolina's Mark Sanford, Mississippi's Haley Barbour and Utah's Jon Huntsman Jr. "to find new solutions for Washington."
Institute for Policy Innovation scholar Merrill Matthews thinks one hope for the GOP's future may come from the conservative think tanks. Once the fount of ideas but reluctant to take on a Republican president who has not followed a traditional conservative path, these quasi-academic research policy organizations may no longer be compromised and may actually offer some new ideas and useful critiques of whatever the new presidency brings.
Or Republicans can sit tight, criticize the Democrats' every action and hope for a pendulum swing - the next economic downturn - to work its magic. The last time the Republicans went that route, it took them 40 years, Mr. Gingrich and an overreaching Clinton administration to make it work.
Mr. McCain's long, successful push to bar "interest group" advertising before elections and ban "soft money" donations came back to bite him in Tuesday's elections, permanently annoying many Republican voters.
"The damage the Bush administration has done to the conservative movement by signing McCain-Feingold campaign finance regulations is immeasurable," said Republican elections lawyer Cleta Mitchell. "And there is some irony in the fact that the legislation sponsored by McCain ultimately may have lead to his defeat."